You’re creating and leading a call, meeting, workshop, convening, conference or other event. As the facilitator, your job is the purposeful orchestration of human interaction. Voluntold or otherwise, you’re responsible for making the event worth the cost of all the other things attendees might be doing with their time. At a deeper level, you’re responsible for reaching for those outcomes that are uniquely possible with this group of people at this time. What do you do?
Some common options: 1) panic, then try to copy the event you attended that had great slides and fidget toys on the tables; 2) hire someone to deliver a generic event from their box of standard events; 3) wing it and hope that everyone will remember your event well because you gave them really good cookies; or 4) stop guessing and gambling with your success and reputation at stake and start asking Event Design Questions.
The Event Design Questions are based on questions I’ve used to create and lead meetings, design workshops, design sprints, strategy sessions, summits, conferences, and more. There’s no magic. The Event Design Questions help you gather the information you need and avoid blind spots when designing and facilitating events. It’s a complete list of questions for designing and facilitating events.
We’ll define an event as people attempting to address a challenge by gathering together to focus their combined experience and attention on that challenge for a period of time. That way, events include calls, team meetings, project meetings, design sprints, design workshops, short convenings, and multi-day conferences.
Facilitation is the purposeful orchestration of human interaction. The facilitator identifies and pursues outcomes that fulfill the purpose of an event by designing activities where people interact in ways that build toward those outcomes.
At Fluid Hive, the courses we teach, events we create, and projects we lead use our three-step design process: See, Solve, Act. One great thing about a good design process is how you can adapt it to particular challenges. Here’s Fluid Hive’s facilitation design process:
See — Live the Opportunity: Challenge, People, Participant Scan, Relationships, Time & Pace, Place
Solve — Earn Success: Sketch Success, The Action, Interaction, Capture, Guides, Group Energy, Breaks, Rules
Act — Craft and Deliver the Event: Script, Testing, Backup, Self-care, Delivery Dance
Fluid Hive’s See, Solve, Act design process helps you see and solve like a designer while getting results with design-driven innovation. To make the See, Solve, Act design process practical and easy to apply, I’ve created the questions you need to answer to do the work of Seeing, Solving and Acting — Design Thinking Questions. I teach all 50 Design Thinking Questions in the Innovation Design Studio and set people up with a complete system for getting results with design-driven innovation.
I’ve taken a similar approach here with these Event Design Questions. Fluid Hive’s Designing Facilitation course, uses Event Design Questions spread across Seeing, Solving, and Acting to give you a way to consistently and confidently create and deliver events that achieve your goals. In the course, I walk you through how to answer them step-by-step, and provide Practice Tools that help you apply what you learn. The Practice Tools are like the Ask Like a Designer Thinking Tool you can download with this article.
Here are the Event Design Questions:
See — Live the Opportunity
Challenge: What problem are we trying to solve? What is causing the need for the event; what is the instigating problem? Dig deeper and ask, what is the actual problem? What should happen as a result of the event? What do we want people to be able to do after? What do we want them to learn? What might we want to experiment with or test after? What’s at stake?
People: Who are our people? Sponsor, participants, the people you serve, the people who will continue the work after the event (after-party people), the sponsor’s leader, others. The sponsor is the person who decided the event would happen and has expectations about outcomes. Sometimes the facilitator and the sponsor are the same person.
Participant Scan: How will we prepare everyone for the event? What do they need to learn or do in advance? How will we make sure everyone can participate? Ask about mobility, vision, hearing, speech, allergies, or other participant characteristics we’ll use to shape our event. Language matters. Before, during and after an event, choose phrasing people will receive well and that aligns with what makes participants feel respected and psychologically safe. Ask the sponsor or a few participants if there is any participant history or expectations you need to understand.
Relationships: What kind of relationships are we trying to build between the participants? How well do people know each other? What kind of experience do they have working together? How do we want relationships to develop?
Time & Pace: Do we have enough time? Does the pace match the challenge and participants? Often, the time we’re offered and the time we need are different. Adjust the problem definition to what’s possible in the time we have, or find more time. Everyone is tempted to do too much during an event. Do less to achieve more.
Place: How might you adapt the venue to the challenge, people, relationships, time, and pace? Visit the venue and test what’s there. How will we move through the space? How will participants move? Test the online venue. How will we navigate the space? How might participants navigate the space?
Solve — Earn Success
Sketch Success: What must we accomplish to consider the event a success? What are our objective measures of success? What will happen as a result of the event? What will people be able to do?
The Action: What are all the outcomes? What must we help participants do to earn our outcomes? How might we break down each outcome into the moments of action needed to generate it? What is the flow of our action moments; how do we connect them?
Interaction Modes: Are our interaction modes suited to the challenge, people, place, time, capture, relationships, and the action? Mix up interaction modes. In combination with the action, they heavily influence event pacing and energy. Options: solo, 1-to-1, small groups, teams, large groups, 1-to-all, all-to-all.
Capture: What must we capture during the event? Based on the challenge — the problem(s) we are trying to solve — what will people need after the event? Worksheets, templates, video, photos, scans, recordings, survey data, physical artifacts, insights, transcripts, … .
Guides: What will our people need to focus on to generate the outcomes this challenge demands? How will we direct that focus? What are the slides, handouts, templates, posters, models, pre-populated digital tools, or other guides we’ll need so everyone always knows what they should be doing, how they should do it, and why it matters? How might we make sure we create clear instructions for everything people will do? The Ask Like a Designer Thinking Tool download for this article is an example of a guide.
Group Energy: How will we prime participants for action and help them start with icebreakers? How will we use stokes — quick, fun activities — to help people keep their energy up and recharge? Connect icebreakers and stokes to the problem to solve and relationships to build.
Breaks: How will we take care of our participants? How will we use breaks to make sure people can focus in the right ways at the right times? Ignore human biology long enough and people will choose the worst moments to take care of themselves. And remember, breaks always take five minutes longer than scheduled.
Rules: What are the rules for how people work together? Chatham House Rule, be kind, everyone speaks once before anyone speaks twice, listen more than you speak, etc.
Act — Craft and Deliver the Event
Script: What’s the script for the day? The script shows the event timetable, minutes for each action, the action and instruction, who is doing what, notes, etc. This is your most important facilitation tool. Making and using a script will take your facilitation to the next level.
Testing: How will we develop and test our script with the sponsor, if there is one, and participants? How will we check that the event we’ve planned achieves the outcomes from their perspectives? How will we practice? If possible, walk through the script activities with the sponsor and a few participants. Consider how every moment addresses the problem the event is intended to solve.
Backup: Two is one; one is none. What will we do when something, or everything, goes wrong? Bring extra print copies and presentations on thumb drives. Have a backup online option. Have a plan to replace key people. Something big will go wrong. Be prepared to roll with it.
Self-care: How will we make sure we enjoy facilitating the event? Once the event starts, if we’ve thought through the tips above, we can enjoy helping people lead, explore and create. Sit down when you can. Enjoy the breaks and the people you’re working with.
Delivery Dance: How will we make sure our event delivery is smooth and adaptable? Here are some quick tips for the dance: Set up in-person spaces the day before if you can. Be strict with the time in the script. Speak louder than you think you need to. Make sure your voice carries to the corners of the room. Slow down when giving instructions. Read the room: scan people’s eyes for energy, understanding, interest, and emotion. A knitted brow is a signal. Stay flexible and use your script to adapt if you discover better ways to hit your objectives. Address conflict quickly and quietly. Set up with clean up in mind. Leave time to chat and learn with participants after the event.
The Event Design Questions will help you design and facilitate exceptional and effective events. But there’s a higher level where you can create even better events. Getting there means using the Event Design Questions, then adding to them and modifying them to match your context and your unique way of creating events. Try using the questions with your next event and see how it goes. To help you get started, I created a Facilitation Design Workbook for you. Download your copy and start asking.
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Ask Like a Designer Thinking Tools make it easy to apply what you learn.